Marketing: Get Naked to Get Ahead

4 June 2010 Sue Nelson

Businesses need to bin the four Ps if they want their marketing to be effective. Instead, says former CEO and marketing director Sue Nelson, they need to get naked – and banish the myths surrounding the profession.

Marketing has always been seen as a dark art. It's often not considered a "real" profession like accountancy or law, and certainly not the sort of background that would smooth your path to the executive board.

Traditionally it is a role which CEOs have had difficulty defining and explaining – a bit fluffy, not quite sales, a job for the girls. It involves brochures, advertising and corporate hospitality. And when times get rough, it's the first contender for budget cuts, because it's a cost and not an investment.

The perception is certainly the fault of marketers and, dare I say it, our professional body. They have never quite explained themselves properly, and never really made a clear case that marketing spend is essential, even more so when times are hard.

The other problem is that day-to-day commercial marketing isn't actually that difficult. It is common sense, and the end point or key measurement is not about awareness, creating buzz or any of that nonsense – it's about people buying your product, service or message. If they don't buy it, you've wasted your marketing money and you might as well not bother.

Marketing is therefore a straight investment decision. Let's say you invest £25,000 in marketing. If you don't get at least £25,750 (3%) back in increased sales – not total sales – you should have stuck the money in a bank propped up by the government instead.

After 25 years, my simmering anger at being in a profession that misrepresented itself, and was underused and misunderstood by CEOs and boards, led me to write a book.

Time to turn over a new leaf

I wanted to explain just how a company can leverage marketing principles from top to bottom, in order to survive in a complex environment where consumer trust has pretty much evaporated. I called it "naked marketing" to dispel the myths generated by both sides of the marketing divide – stripping away the mystique and the whiff of emperor's new clothes that has hung around the profession for decades.

As part of this middle-aged form of professional exorcism, I also wanted to jettison the outdated rubbish taught in lecture theatres and on distance-learning programmes across the country. Students are still being taught the "four Ps". It's unbelievable. This marketing methodology was developed in the 1960s, well before the internet, mobile phones or email became an everyday reality.

The four Ps view the world from a marketer's perspective. It stands for Product (product development and production), Price (pricing strategies), Promotion (advertising, publicity and sales promotion) and Place (distribution channels). Apparently, you only need concentrate on these four in sequence, and your product or service will fly off the shelf.

The theory is based on the premise that marketers, or their organisations, are in control; that the customer is somehow the end point, and an unwitting and naïve pawn in the complex tactical game of getting them to part with their money or use your service.

"The new marketing logic is about providing a product, service or experience that your customers
truly want."

In effect it is a supply-side model that pushes out towards the customer, with the assumption that there isn't a context of over-supply, that competitor comparison is difficult and that lots of people unquestionably want your product or service offering.

For most organisations, to follow this premise today is at worst a threat to their business, and at best a waste of marketing money. The process is fatally flawed and the age of the credit crunch demands something more practical, logical and helpful, not just for business owners, but for those in the public and third sectors.

Customer-centric marketing

I believe that a customer-centric marketing process is needed instead. The concept should be used by CEOs because it will allow them to ask some powerful questions of the marketing department, not least of which: "where is my tangible, long-term return on investment?"

The new marketing logic is about providing a product, service or experience that your customers truly want. Making information available to them when and where they want it, and giving them an outstanding service. In essence, the process – shortened to ISAIAH (see image, right) – asks the following critical questions:

  • Insight – do you know your customers?
  • Solution development – can you solve their problems?
  • Awareness – have they heard of you?
  • Information gathering – where can they find out more?
  • Assessment – how do you compare to the competition?
  • Handover – what are you like to deal with?

I also propose a new definition of marketing: "Marketing is a philosophy not a process. It's about putting the customer at the centre of every business decision you make. It's about gaining and keeping a positive, word of mouth reputation."

"Truly putting customers first is a philosophy. You can't pretend outwardly, but actually dismiss it behind closed doors."

This means you have to make advocates out of all of your staff, and you have to personally lead from the front and insist on a new way of thinking.

If you just want incremental gains, short-term results and don't care about your customers, there are lots of ways of getting them – just slash your prices, or go for a big budget advertising campaign that makes unrealistic claims. That may get you a first purchase, but probably not a repeat one.

If you want real profits and sustained competitive advantage, especially in tough times, you need permanently happy customers who honestly believe you have a great reputation, and are willing to recommend you by word of mouth.

Truly putting customers first is a philosophy, and it should be right up there in your vision, mission and corporate planning. You can't pretend outwardly, but actually dismiss it behind closed doors. You have to fundamentally believe it, not just with your business head, but with all your heart, and you have to lead your staff through it.

If you do, naked marketing and the ISAIAH process offer a roadmap to achieve an outstanding business reputation with genuine long-term success. If you don't, then ultimately this process is useless to you, but you can get some short-term unsustainable gains, by pulling the wool over your customers' eyes. If you want to risk it.

The four Ps are an outdated model for a world which no longer exists.
ISAIAH details how your customers can become your advocates.
Sue Nelson redefines marketing to put customers at the centre of every business decision.